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How To Maintain An Axe (Head, Handle And Sheath)

Tim Foley
January 9, 2019
Last Updated: March 4, 2024

Wood handled axes require minimal maintenance routines to keep them functioning, and operating at their peak performance capabilities. These routines include proper storage practices, and periodic oiling of the head and handle, as well as and treating the leather sheaths.

We recommend this process at least once every calendar year, with best practice being done twice per year. If you find yourself out in very wet conditions very often, oiling the axe should happen more frequently.

Wood handles are comfortable, strong, flexible, robust, and ecologically sound choices for tool handles. However, wood tool should not be stored in either very warm and dry environments, or very wet environments. When storing your axe, keep it away from heating ducts, or hot, dry areas of your home. This may over time, cause the wood to dry excessively, and cause the wood to shrink - resulting in a loose head.

Wood handles' performance can also be impacted negatively by prolonged exposure to water. If left wet for long periods, an un-oiled, or poorly oiled wood handle’s cells will absorb moisture and swell to the point that it over-saturates the wood’s cells, and causes them to rupture. Once the wood dries again, the handle will shrink due to the compromised cells - again resulting in a loose head. While soaking wood handles in water will initially cause them to swell (which can secure a loose head while out in the field), once dry, the soaked handle will need to be replaced.

Proper oiling regimens will protect against overly dry or wet environments while using your axe in the field.

Required Materials/Tools:

  • Wood oil (such as Badger Oil)
  • Gun Oil
  • Leather Better
  • Paper Towel
  • Fine Grit Sandpaper
  • Container to Rest Axe In
  • Piece of Scrap Cardboard
  • Latex Gloves (optional)

Steps to Clean and Maintain Your Axe:

  1. Prepare the axe head by removing any rust that may have developed. This can be done with a green pot scrubber and a mild acid (vinegar). For deeper rust, steel brushes can be used. Wipe and dry the head when finished.
  2. Prepare the axe handle by cleaning (with a moist cloth) and drying it. Fine grit sandpaper can be used to remove any ground-in dirt, or surface material.
  3. The wood will absorb oil better if it is warmed, so the best time to treat a handle is on a warm sunny day (in summer), or a bright sunny day (in winter).
  4. Wrap the handle in paper towel.
  5. Pour a small amount of oil onto the paper towel/handle until the paper towel is saturated with oil.
  6. Put oil and saturated paper towel around the top (above the eye) of the handle, and around the knob (bottom) of the axe. Both of these areas feature open grain, and are the most susceptible to water penetration, and so must be well oiled.
  7. Rub the saturated paper towel over the length of handle, and then wrap like a mummy in the paper towel.
  8. Leave the handle on a window ledge in direct sun (winter), or outside in the sun (summer) for 1 - 2 hours to allow the handle to warm and absorb the oil.
  9. Flip the axe over, and repeat for the second side.
  10. When finished, wipe down the handle with more paper towel or a clean cloth.
  11. OPTIONAL: As the oil will leave the handle feeling smooth, to increase the "grippiness" of the handle, you can apply bee's wax to the handle to provide a tacky surface.
  12. To oil the head of the axe, simply spray on a few squirts of gun oil to each side of the head, wipe lightly to spread evenly, and then place head down on a small piece of cardboard and allow the oil to dry for 1 - 2 hours. Do not wipe off excess oil when finished.
  13. To treat the leather sheath, wipe with a moist cloth, and allow to dry. Rub a generous amount of Leather Better into the leather on one side, and place in the sun. As the leather warms, it will absorb more of the Leather better. If leather absorbs all of it, apply more, until the leather no longer absorbs all of the paste.
  14. Flip over and repeat on the other side.
  15. Once done, wipe off the excess paste, and buff with a clean cloth.
  16. Your axe is now full prepared for it's next set of adventures.

CAUTION: Disposing of oily rags or paper towel: certain wood oils (such as linseed oil) dries through a process of oxidation that produces heat: if not treated properly, this can produce fires. While hemp oil is less volatile, caution should still be applied. Excess oil used can be strained, and poured back into it’s container. Rags and cloths should be stored in water in air tight containers. Oily paper towels can be burned off, or composted.

Tim Foley

Tim grew up spending summers and much of his spare time in the backwoods of Northern Ontario and has been canoeing, camping and hiking ever since. When not running the Canadian Outdoor Equipment Co., you can find him riding his bike, hiking the Bruce Trail, canoeing, or clearing trails, cutting firewood and testing gear out in the bush.
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